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Features / Fashion

Your Ad Here: why Grindr, Pornhub and YouPorn are fashion’s new billboards

Illustration:

Ted Parker

The relationship between fashion and sex is by now almost an essentialism, but how did a gay hook-up app come to play host to an award-winning designer’s fashion show? How did a porn star come to be the face of one of Britain’s most indelible brands? How did porn sites come to present covetable advertising opportunities? 

A corner of the fashion industry has been taking a new approach to marketing, one pushing the time-worn idea that sex sells in a different direction. By turning to porn websites and apps like Grindr, or looking to those worlds for models, a trend for franchising the x-rated is emerging in fashion advertising. What this seems to say, beyond a desire to be provocative, is that private sex lives – as they relate to the internet, at least – are essentially new ad spaces. 

In just one month, London label J.W. Anderson teamed up with Grindr to stream its AW16 menswear show, Vivienne Westwood tapped gay porn star Colby Keller as the face of its SS16 campaign and Diesel launched bespoke adverts across Pornhub, Grindr, Tinder and YouPorn. These moves are tied as much to modern attitudes toward sex as they are to digital culture. 

2016 has also seen a skirt-wearing Jaden Smith front Louis Vuitton’s womenswear campaign and Burberry and Vetements both combine menswear and womenswear into one show. Elsewhere, Vivienne Westwood continued to play with cross-dressing with its “Sexercise” collection during Paris Fashion Week in early March, sending men down the runway in everything from silver loincloths to gold lamé wrap dresses and platform heels. None radical in isolation, but all markers of a much wider shift toward a free-flowing approach to sexuality in fashion.  

This comes after several years when the fashion agenda has prized “intelligent” design by way of trends like normcore and Scandimania. Now, with new strategies boasting real savvy, attention is turning away from the mind and to the body, from ideas to desire.

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Amid the melee of men’s fashion shows in early January, J.W. Anderson made waves when news broke its most recent menswear collection would be live-streamed via Grindr during London Collections: Men. The move marked a number of firsts, most notably the app’s unexpected initiation into the fashion industry, but also the first time Grindr was repurposed as a publishing platform. “Log on Jan 10 to get zero feet away from fashion” read the invite, playing on the geosocial programming that enables Grindr to show, down to the nearest foot, how close other users are.

To exclusively broadcast a fashion show through the lens of a gay app, where it played on loop for 24 hours, was a veritable coup. It was also a highly sophisticated marketing strategy, not least for the attention it attracted. After all, the label’s namesake Jonathan Anderson told The Guardian last year, “The minute your brand can be predicted, you’ve got a problem.”

As a brand built upon genderqueer stylings, J.W. Anderson has confidently teased ideas about modern masculinity with everything from frilled shorts, blouses and chokers for men. To then champion Grindr as a fashion channel only cemented its reputation for provocation. With Grindr boasting seven million worldwide users at any given moment, it also meant Anderson was able to tap into a targeted audience, a larger-than-normal proportion of which will make up the designer’s niche demographic. 

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Even though an element of shock is more often than not welcomed in the fashion industry, online footprint is more likely the driving force here. The sheer traffic routed through social media and porn channels mean that these recent manoeuvres are both rousing and bankable at the same time. Colby Keller’s Instagram-based art porn project has amassed over 73,000 followers, and Pornhub, a major host for Diesel’s latest native banner ads, counted 21 billion hits in 2015. In this light, the trend is ultimately about mining private digital experiences in a way that suggests this is only the beginning of advertising that will look to find us at our most vulnerable. 

As a figurehead of the adult film industry and the newest face of Vivienne Westwood, Colby Keller brings these developments offline. The campaign, shot by Juergen Teller in Venice, sees Keller naked under a morning coat or in knee-high patent leather boots and little else. The choice acquaints the intimate world of porn with the global nature of high profile fashion advertising, and in doing so, it normalises as much as it radicalises. It also underscores an existing grasp of sexuality and personal style as certain bedfellows. 

None of this is to say that in the next few years models will be replaced by porn stars, Grindr will become the next Vogue Runway or that you will see Waitrose adverts on Pornhub. The examples outlined here very much make sense in terms of branding. They also reflect a certain irreverence and a much-needed reprieve from the loftier coupling of art and fashion. 

It has been said that a world without art would be blind to itself. The same could be said for a world without fashion. As it holds the mirror up, in many ways fashion can often be read as an allegory for the wider cultural landscape. J.W. Anderson and Grindr, Diesel and Pornhub, Colby Keller and Vivienne Westwood – these all reflect not only the changing world we live in but most pertinently the way we live, beyond fashion and beyond sex.