‘It’s not as much of a novelty’: Why sex doesn’t sell in 2017

Maybe sex doesn’t sell anymore.

Evident in the latest campaigns and runway collections, and the retailers managing to survive, revealing and body-conscious styles have taken a backseat to easy pieces (leggings, sweatshirts, tracksuits) and modest looks that leave much to the imagination. Today, skin is out, comfort is king and blatantly sexy is frowned upon. Some say it’s an obvious nod to female empowerment.

Fashion campaigns
Last year, Abercrombie & Fitch began actively distancing itself from its notorious “sexualized marketing” by scrubbing its Instagram account, revamping its stores (brighter, quieter, less potent) and launching advertising campaigns void of shirtless models and provocative poses. This year, it followed up with the relaunch of its Gilly Hicks lingerie line (now sold through Hollister), accompanied by ads seemingly inspired by Aerie’s AerieReal campaign, instead of its own image archives. Think: Women of all sizes, smiling, rather than model types on the verge of making out.

According to Justin Lehmiller, who runs the blog Sex and Psychology, Abercrombie & Fitch is on the right track, especially considering its largely teenage customer base. “Today, more than ever, younger generations want to put themselves in the shoes of the person in the advertisement,” he said. “When they see a sexy woman being used to sell a pair of jeans or a hamburger, they are more likely to think about her being objectified. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, which can provoke [social] backlash.”

Lately, that backlash has forced a lot of fashion brands to backpedal on marketing plans. Just last month, France’s advertising watchdog Autorité de Régulation Professionnelle de la Publicité, or ARPP, forced Saint Laurent to pull its spring 2017 ads from billboards, following social outcry claiming the photos — which zeroed in on the crotches of skinny models wearing fishnets and leotards — promoted “porno chic.” “The brand needs to ask itself what image it is giving, especially to impressionable young people,” ARPP general manager Stéphane Martin told WWD at the time.

Saint Laurent’s banned spring 2017 campaign (image via adage.com)

Like many brands, Saint Laurent has long made a habit of testing the limits of provocative advertising. However, some — like Versace — have noticeably cleaned up their acts in recent years. (“I’m so bored with this word ‘sexy’,” Donatella Versace said at the opening of her Hong Kong flagship earlier this month.) Lehmiller owed it to the fact that scantily clad models no longer pack shock value.

Versace spring 2013 (image via dailymail.co.uk) and spring 2017 ad campaigns (fashnberry.com)

“We’ve reached a saturation point with sexy advertising; it doesn’t have the same effectiveness anymore,” he said. He also attributed its loss of impact to greater access to pornography: “People today have access to any kind of pornography imaginable in the palm of their hand, at any given time, just a couple of clicks away. In a world like that, sexy advertising can’t have the same impact. It’s not as much of a novelty.”

Fashion collections
In the same way, designers are turning out unprecedentedly covered-up collections. A new, more modest look was obvious in the trend report Vogue released following February’s fall 2017 shows. Highlighting pantsuits, shearling, corduroy, Fair Isle sweaters, slogan styles and a selection “it” colors, there wasn’t a sexy-skewing style in the bunch. Yes, the included collections were made for cool seasons, but in years past, sheer layers, vampy black and leather often made the cut.

A trend in Vogue’s fall 2017 runway report (image via vogue.com)

One that did feature slinky, barely-there looks was Anthony Vaccarello’s sophomore collection for Saint Laurent. However, as a result, the designer received criticism for “trying too hard to be sexy.”

“Sex is complicated,” noted The Washington Post’s fashion critic Robin Givhan, following the February 28 show. She added, “So far, Vaccarello has only gotten to the part about super short dresses and leather.”

Even the Victoria’s Secret’s Fashion Show is striking out in terms of fans. A reflection of the brand’s drop in sales (it has posted double-digit comparable sales declines in each of the year’s first three months), the ratings of the televised event have been on a steady decline. It’s December 2016 show received its worst ratings in history.

It seems the brand’s image is no longer resonating with today’s women — for whom comfort (rather than creating curves with a push-up bra) is a priority. Victoria’s Secret is no doubt aware of that fact. It started carrying bralettes last year, and soon after, ditched its swim line in favor an increased focus on athleisure.

“Comfort is a dominant theme throughout the fashion world, and today’s bra consumer — especially millennials — is seeking both physical and personal comfort,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD Group chief industry analyst, said in a report.

The state of retail
Late last month, following weeks of speculation, Bebe — which “embodies a sensual, sophisticated lifestyle” and is designed for the “confident, sexy, modern woman,” according to its website — revealed plans to close each of its 170 physical stores and become an online-only retailer by the end of May. Similarly, in early March, BCBGMaxAzria — known for body-con “bandage” dresses — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and immediately began shuttering 120 store locations in the states.

On the same note, since the start of the year, Wet Seal, Nasty Gal and American Apparel — popular go-tos for shoppers seeking flirty or revealing styles — have announced plans to close all of their brick-and-mortar locations.

Of course, due to the rise of Amazon and e-commerce, declining mall traffic has hurt stores across the board. Others, like The Limited, have also shuttered, and department stores including Macy’s, Sears and JCPenney have announced vast store closures in recent months. But those that have more successfully maintained their popularity clearly back an aesthetic that’s more casual than sexy: A recent survey revealed Urban Outfitters as millennials’ most beloved brand, and American Eagle recently reported its 10th straight quarter of improved profits.

The “it” look
Many cite Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele as the brains behind the look du jour — and also as Gucci’s present-day equivalent of Tom Ford. Both took the Italian fashion house to drastically new directions. For Ford (who served as creative director from 1994-2004), the aesthetic was obviously seeped in sex. Michele’s direction, on the other hand, has been called everything from “quirky” and “androgynous” to “granny chic.” Printed pieces with long hemlines, high necklines and long sleeves have emerged as the designer’s signatures. While he’s received backlash for using too-skinny models, “too naked” has yet to be an issue.

Gucci’s controversial ad campaigns for spring 2003 (image via wgsn.com) and resort 2017 (nytimes.com)

Jessa Reus, head of customer acquisition at e-commerce aggregator ShopStyle, said searches on the site reflect the widespread trend toward more modest styles: Those that include the term “sexy” are down 8 percent since last year, and customers are steering clear of styles that fall under the category: “Body-con” searches are down 45 percent, and “backless” is down 20 percent. On the other hand, searches for feminine details, like “ruffles” are up 79 percent, and full-coverage options, including “overalls” are up 17 percent.

The politics of it all
Many argue the current political climate is largely behind women’s tendencies to throw on clothes that negate men’s opinions; “strong,” “sophisticated” and “practical” styles are trumping those that are “seductive” because — as they have always done — women are expressing themselves sartorially. Today, wearing modest clothing, like putting on a pussy hat or a feminist slogan T-shirt, is often a form of fashion activism.

“Clothes are an integral part of the debate over the freedom to make your own choices … that picked up steam thanks to both the leaked tape of Mr. Trump talking about grabbing women and the debate over the hijab,” Vanessa Friedman, fashion director of The New York Times, stated in a recent story.

Image via themodist.com

As a result, more retailers specializing in modest apparel have been popping up, including The Modist — considered the Net-a-Porter of modest fashion — which launched on International Women’s Day last month.

Indeed, fashion has moved on from “naked dresses,” second-skin silhouettes and bras-as-tops. However, if history is any indication, the shift will be short-lived.

“Trends are cyclical,” said Lehmiller. “Maybe ‘sexy’ has gone out of style for now, but it will be back again. Give it a few years.”

Valentino Spring 2017 image via cnn.com

Get news and analysis about fashion, beauty and culture delivered to your inbox every morning.