The Unofficial Fourth Era of the Pirelli Cal

The Unofficial Fourth Era of the Pirelli Cal

For many in the world of motorsport, hearing the name Pirelli means you’ve entered a conversation about tires— whether on sports cars or bicycles. For many others, Pirelli is a hallmark in the business of launching and highlighting top models in the fashion industry. For me, “The Cal” serves as a crucial intersection between lifestyle and motorsport that has successfully evolved over the years to turn an outdated publication style into a luxury exclusive. What started out as a corporate freebie edging on the corporate publication of glorified nudes has now evolved into one of the greatest names in modern-day, nuanced aestheticism. “The Cal” has gained fame and genuine cultural endowment as a fashion publication cited in the likes of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, and The New York Times. Its origins as a throwaway marketing strategy managed to steadily establish the Italian tire company as a dominating name in both lifestyle and automotive branding.

Pirelli distinguishes the history of “The Cal” through the lens of three different eras. The first decade, from 1964 to 1974, saw the calendar’s inception at the hands of Derek Forsyth and Robert Freeman. In 1972 “The Cal” had its first female photographer, Sarah Moon, lend a non-patriarchal artistic gaze to the female body. It was soon announced that the 1975 publication would not be completed due to political and cultural crisis. The second decade, from 1984 to 1994, marks the return and relaunch of “The Cal.” Publications from the mid to late eighties include “discreet, almost subliminal” references to Pirelli’s first love: automobile tires. The tread pattern of the P6 tire featured on models’ bodies, set pieces, and clothing until 1994— marking the inception of the third decade. After moving the company’s artistic direction from Britain to Milan, it was decided that all mention of tires in the calendar would cease. “The Cal” was now divorced from the need to constantly reckon with Pirelli’s legacy in tires and instead became centered on conveying the brand’s dedication to lifestyle and art.

1985, shot by Norman Parkinson. Luglio, Iman. P6 tyre tread pattern on her dress. Image source: Pirelli Website.

The whispers of an unofficial fourth era of the Pirelli calendar have been lingering in the newsrooms of media outlets since 2015—with many predicting that Annie Leibovitz’s uncharacteristic edition of “The Cal” would mark a shift in the calendar’s creative approach. Leibovitz’s cast announcement for the calendar sparked a wildfire of conversation surrounding the future of Pirelli’s infamous calendar that historically featured barely-there outfits and exclusive top models from around the globe. The 2016 cast included the likes of Serena Williams, Amy Schumer, Fran Lebovitz, Yoko Ono, and Sadie Rain Hope-Gund (accompanied by her grandmother, Agnes Gund). Philanthropists, authors, directors, producers, financial executives, artists, and cultural icons don the glossy pages of a calendar historically reserved for naked supermodels. Shot entirely in black and white, Leibovitz’s calendar features women chosen for their cultural value and power. The only models not fully clothed are Serena Williams and Amy Schumer—both images imply a nod to their professions: Schumer claims her character would naturally be the last to get the memo about being fully clothed for a traditionally nude photoshoot, and Williams’s portrait emphasizes the physical strength and beauty of a world-renowned athlete. In 2015, the 2016 calendar was seen as the first domino in a cultural shift that I think has marked a new era in the calendar’s history: Pirelli’s conscious embrace of “The Cal” as a cultural, social, political, and aesthetic medium.

January by Uwe Ommer for 1984 Pirelli Calendar. Image source: Ommer’s website

Speculations and questions about whether or not Pirelli would continue to commission artists with an eye for producing culturally salient, aesthetic calendar content remained unanswered during the early years of the unofficial fourth era. Six years later, and with six uniquely themed calendars under their belt, Pirelli’s subconscious rebranding of “The Cal” has remained true to its promise of “reflecting the times.” 2017 saw Peter Lindbergh become the first photographer to shoot three editions of “The Cal”; his up-close portraits capitalized on freeing women from the ideal of perfect beauty. The first all-Black cast since 1987 featured in the 2018 edition of the calendar. Themed “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” photographer Tim Walker strived to achieve an almost afrofuturistic retelling of a traditionally all-white cast of characters. Albert Watson shot a dream-themed edition of the calendar for 2019; his calendar images tell the story of four powerful, successful women achieving their wildest dreams.

1986, shot by Bert Stern. P6 tread pattern in painting. Image source: Dazed Digital.

Perhaps my favorite indicator of Pirelli’s shift into an unofficial fourth era of “The Cal” is the 2020 edition, shot by Paolo Roversi. The calendar is titled “Looking for Juliette” and stars nine iterations of William Shakespeare’s most beloved lover. The cast includes Rosalía, Indya Moore, and Yara Shahidi among a mix of international actresses and singers. Roversi is on the hunt for Juliette, “because there’s a Juliette in every woman … and I will never stop looking for her.” His selection of a literary text steeped in cultural significance—both in the play’s physical portrayal of society, its cultural status as a high-brow work of literature, and its evolution into the “gateway drug” for readers of Shakespeare (not to mention its timeless adaptability and accessibility)—heightens the calendar’s status as a cultural marker and reflection of the times. Endeavors like Roversi’s edition of “The Cal” solidify the brand’s subconscious shift from prioritizing the over-sexualization of women to indulging and consciously partaking in the complexities of modern aestheticism. “Looking for Juliette” is the first calendar to be accompanied by a short film; premiered in Verona with introductory remarks by Whoopie Goldberg, who read selections from the play and shared her own reflections on Shakespeare’s work and Roversi’s interpretation. The exclusive premieres for “The Cal” have shifted from solely revolving around the fashion industry to becoming a culturally salient event. The 2022 calendar (succeeding the absent 2021 calendar as a result of the global pandemic) will be shot by Bryan Adams, the musician and photographer, and will feature its very own Spotify playlist. Adams’ cast includes musical artists from varying genres and centers on the struggles and triumphs of touring as a musician “On the Road.” While very few details surrounding the release and premiere of the calendar have been revealed, it seems to me a missed opportunity if Pirelli didn’t launch the calendar with a musical event.

2014 (shot 1986). Helmut Newton. Image source: Pirelli.

2015. Backstage of Steven Meisel’s Pirelli Cal. Candice Huffine. Image source: W Magazine. 

The unofficial fourth era of the Pirelli calendar not only highlights a “reflection of the times,” but marks a stark shift from the Calendar’s focus on outdated ideologies centering the over-sexualization of women for male consumption. The rise of the calendar’s evolution runs parallel to the increased effort to highlight and pave the way for the inclusion of more women in motorsport. Michèle Mouton’s comments on the W series raised many eyebrows as she emphasized the potential for the series to become discriminatory to female drivers in a sport that has no need to be segregated by gender. She urges that the inclusion of women must be based on performance in the sport, not the performance of inclusion. This sentiment seems to heavily preside over recent editions of “The Cal” as more photographers are choosing to provide a lens for their work to be interpreted as more than just photos in a calendar. From cultural icons to Alice in Wonderland to Shakespeare, the unofficial fourth decade of Pirelli’s annual calendar has established itself as a true work of art.

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