Smoking has all but disappeared from popular media, and that’s indisputably a good thing.
After more than 50 years of restrictive new laws and public health education, tobacco use is waning in most Western countries. In the media, depictions of people smoking have been relegated to cable TV, country music, indie films and the occasional edgy magazine editorial.
But there’s one more curious little niche where it’s still safe to light up in front of the camera: lingerie marketing.
In the past year, we’ve spotted at least a dozen independent lingerie brands that use cigarettes and other tobacco products as props in their glossy photo campaigns, lookbooks and social media marketing.
Some, like the California label For Love and Lemons (above), are going for a rebel brand image. Nothing, apparently, conveys the rogue spirit better than having a smoke in your expensive and very flammable lace nightgown.
Others, like the classy Toronto label Fortnight Lingerie (below), create nostalgia for vintage style by showing their model having a smoke in a longline bra reminiscent of the Mad Men era.
It’s a dangerous and exploitative marketing ploy, given that most of these brands target younger customers who — as decades of research by health advocacy groups have shown — are most susceptible to the allure of smoking. And it’s happening at a time when there’s a renewed push by health authorities to keep young people from becoming hooked, whether it’s on cigarettes or hip new e-cigs.
The designer brands referenced in this article are all accomplished in other ways, but they have all stumbled blindly into one of the marketing world’s most persistent and discredited maxims: that smoking makes you look sexy.
The fashion industry perpetuated that cliché with near-impunity for decades, but today most of the fashion world accepts the new legal framework and social imperatives that discourage the promotion of smoking. Major fashion magazines stopped showing cigarettes in their editorials back in the 80s and most have explicit corporate policies on the subject.
On those rare occasions today when smoking is part of a fashion production, it’s usually done for shock value — and met with loud criticism.
Three years ago, Kate Moss closed the Louis Vuitton runway show in Paris by nonchalantly smoking a cigarette on stage. It caused a media sensation and, one year later, the Canadian design duo DSquared sent several models down the runway during Milan Fashion Week with cigarettes in hand. How outré!
Both headline-grabbing stunts showed how much the smoking paradigm has shifted in our lifetime: from being a societal norm to a symbol of callow non-conformity with the power to shock.
And despite widespread acceptance of the new marketing landscape, smoking in fashion has proven a hard habit to kick. Former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld famously took a public stand against smoking in 2011, apologizing for all the cigarettes used in the magazine during her tenure and vowing to never do it again. Alas, the second issue of her new CR Fashion Book in 2013 included an editorial feature that showed a model smoking … and drew plenty of scorn for its editor’s hypocrisy.
The reasons behind the fashion world’s addiction to smoking are numerous, nuanced and multi-layered.
Countless screen icons from Audrey Hepburn to Brigitte Bardot, from Lauren Bacall to Liz Taylor, helped glamorize smoking and made cigarettes an essential prop for millions of young women who wanted to be like them. Whether your goal was to appear kittenish or cool and mysterious, a vivacious sexpot or an elusive aristocrat, cigarettes were a fundamental part of the costume.
At the same time smoking, with its reputation as an appetite-suppression aid, became a familiar fixture in the modeling world in the 70s and beyond as the models got skinnier. Even today, supermodels like Kate Moss reinforce the illusion that you can retain your girlish glow (and figure) despite chain-smoking on camera for 25 years.
Across the fashion industry, cigarettes had an almost totemic power to convey sophistication and worldliness and, more recently, anti-authoritarianism and rebellion. Above all else, smoking was a grown-up behavior that seemed to go hand-in-hand with successful adulthood. Young people everywhere were easily seduced by the bombardment of images of beautiful people in beautiful, expensive clothing.
But the connection between lingerie and smoking was even more explicit — which helps explain why it turned into such a durable marketing cliché.
Smoking has been associated with sex for millennia, and a woman with a cigarette in her hand or mouth was a subtle signal of moral lassitude — and a sign of sexual availability. Put that same woman in a nightgown and the meaning changes slightly: smoking becomes a symbol of satisfied consummation. Let’s face it: if you are smoking in your lingerie, you’re probably doing so in bed.
Today, lingerie brands find many (sometimes subtle) ways to exploit the powerful connotations of smoking.
The New York indie brand Bex NYC created a black lace thong called ‘Le Fumeur’ (the smoker), which is packaged in a cigarette box bearing the brand’s logo. The upscale online boutique Fleur du Mal created a panty, as part of its Graphic Panty series last year, imprinted with a familiar image of a model lighting a cigarette.
Numerous brands don’t use cigarettes in their own advertising, but include images of women smoking on their websites or social media feeds that help define the brands’ market and style. The website of the popular New Zealand label Lonely by Lonely Hearts, for example, has an “Influence” gallery of photos that inspire the brand and its customers; three of the 10 images show models smoking.
Sometimes it’s just the cigarettes, not the act of smoking them, that carry the symbolic weight. A new label with a sparkling pedigree, Morgan Lane, used an incongruous photo of a slender model writing in a notebook with a cup full of cigarettes beside her. And cigarettes were everywhere in last year’s Warhol-inspired ‘Factory Girl’ photoshoot from the Montreal label GlobLove but, weirdly, in many photos the model was simply holding an unlit ciggie.
When we spoke to GlobLove‘s founder Liana Artinian last year about those images, she said she used cigarettes in the shoot for the sake of historical accuracy in portraying the 1960s society that inspired the label’s new lingerie collection.
That’s a common argument, especially among fashion brands inspired by vintage style, but it raises an important question: can a lingerie designer really claim the same kind of artistic license that is used to justify smoking in movies or TV shows or paintings? There is artistry involved in these images, certainly, but their primary purpose is to sell products and attract new customers.
It’s significant that these issues are mostly confined to boutique labels run by independent entrepreneurs. Global fashion brands and category leaders within the lingerie industry wouldn’t dream of associating their products with smoking, whether out of political correctness or an acute sense of civic responsibility.
And in a way that makes sense. The overwhelming majority of lingerie marketing by major brands aims to show a refined and tasteful product that is sexy but inoffensive. The raunchiest of the erotic brands will show threesomes spanking each other with paddles and whips, but they won’t show the post-prandial smoke that comes after. That’s going too far.
Young indie brands, however, often don’t have boards of directors to answer to and are happy to court controversy if it means more attention. They know their customers are less likely to be repulsed by models smoking because they invariably target younger women who are more concerned with creating a stylish personal brand than a lifetime of health consequences. It’s a market demographic that is often cavalier about lifestyle choices, worried about their weight and shape, and caught up in the thrall of media-drenched celebrity culture and its hedonistic #YOLO sensibility.
In such a context, smoking is still tremendously appealing.
Smoking may no longer be the emblem of respectable adulthood it once was, but it has an equally powerful new association: it’s a symbol of independence, freedom of choice and willful risk-taking — the kind of things that are intoxicatingly sexy when you’re in your 20s.
Designer lingerie brands that still use cigarettes as a hip marketing prop know this. Whether it is their intention or not, their photo campaigns glamorize smoking and lure their customers toward unhealthy choices and lifelong regret.
Other industries (alcohol, for instance) have adapted to the new marketing paradigm in which depictions of smoking are unacceptable, and there’s no reason the lingerie industry can’t do the same.
The practice is indefensible, and a pall on the industry. Anyone who argues otherwise is just blowing smoke.
For Further Reading:
FDA launches ‘The Real Cost’ tobacco prevention campaign for youth