Book review: Pirelli celebrates 50 years of top artistry and topless titillation

Glossy tome chronicles calendar's ascent to the height of glamour, an eagerly awaited publication where the greatest photographers capture the most beautiful supermodels

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 1:00pm

It doesn't take marketing genius to understand that sex sells, but a tenuous link and smart strategy certainly help. Italian tyre producer Pirelli seized on the formula 50 years ago when it launched what is now arguably the world's most famous calendar. Clue: it's all about curves and aesthetics.

Synonymous with topless titillation, the Pirelli calendar is literally priceless. It was conceived as a cheeky free gift for auto parts dealers who, in return, would stock Pirelli tyres. Its tastefully shot beach babes in bikinis became an instant hit with car mechanics who were used to receiving Michelin Man figurines. Within a few years, when the swimsuits came off, it became a sensation.

Pirelli - The Calendar. 50 Years and More bundles the complete, previously exclusive, collection, stylishly packaged by boutique publisher Taschen. The book also features titbits including photos that never made it to the calendar: behind-the-scenes shots, the first, unpublished calendar of 1963, and commentaries from Pirelli's roster of famous photographers and models.

Pirelli - the Calendar illustrates how the soft-porn icon embraced tasteful sensuality and beauty, and gained immense respectability. Its glamorous reputation made a Pirelli assignment a badge of honour among models and photographers.


Photojournalist Steve McCurry, pop artist Allen Jones and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld rank alongside the elite fashion photographers who jumped at the chance. Rock photographer Annie Leibovitz likens the experience to "joining a very exclusive club".

Given total creative freedom, photographers chose dreamy, exotic backdrops ranging from tropical beaches to mock film locations and the limitless magic of the studio.

For 1990, Arthur Elgort chose a classical Olympics theme and elevated his photo shoot to high art. His nudes in sepia-toned black and white were inspired by ancient figurines of women athletes he'd seen in Greece.

In 1989, Joyce Tenneson chose an astrological theme, capturing her models posing as sexy signs of the zodiac in ethereal soft-focus.

The calendar's stars include some of the world's highest-paid supermodels ("girls that you kind of daydream about", says photographer Bruce Weber), more accustomed to posing in haute couture than their birthday suits. Such is the calendar's stature.

Weber's choices have included Sophie Dahl, boobs thrust towards the camera and arms outstretched, and Eva Herzigova, merrily making spaghetti in a skimpy apron.

Other fashion stars to have bared all for Pirelli include Kate Moss, Helena Christensen and Naomi Campbell, who has been featured several times since her 1987 debut, aged 16. "I remember them having to call my mother to ask if I could be topless," she recalls.

Some Pirelli models are nuder than others. When Patrick Demarchelier took the assignment in 2008 and chose China as his muse, the focus was squarely on Chinese-inspired high fashion, which is probably why Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk agreed to be in it. In its sole topless shot, model Coco Rocha's long hair covers her bust.

Commenting on the prestige of the project, Demarchelier says: "The Pirelli calendar is the most prestigious calendar in the world. Every girl we pick says yes."

Perhaps Lagerfeld, a dab hand with body paint when he depicted Roman and Greek gods, says it best: "Nobody believes in those kinds of gods any more, but the girls in the Pirelli calendar are kind of the goddesses of today."

Pirelli - The Calendar. 50 Years and More introduced by Philippe Daverio (Taschen)