If there ever was an image, or series of images, that could capture the feeling of the 1990s, it might very well be the Calvin Klein Obsession ads featuring ultimate muse Kate Moss. The black and white images of a young Kate, lying on a couch in a house in the middle of nowhere, her face and body mostly bare and her hair salt and sun-soaked from the beach, peering out at us, both vulnerable and fully in command, are indelibly marked on our consciousness. Taken by photographer and Moss’s then-boyfriend, Mario Sorrenti in 1993, the shockingly intimate photos are as raw and emotionally evocative as ever.
Twenty-five years later, the images still resonate today, so much so that the recently installed chief creative officer for Calvin Klein, Raf Simons, decided to revisit never-before-seen outtakes from the original campaign to launch the new fragrances, Obsessed for Women and Obsessed for Men. Reinventions of the classic, citrus and white lavender contrast with musk to give sensuous warmth to the women’s scent, while notes of black pepper, cardamom, patchouli, and vanilla deliver a captivating, spiced aroma for the men’s. “I suppose you could say we were obsessed by Obsession,” says Simons. “If one thing summed up Calvin Klein for us visually, it was Mario Sorrenti’s Obsession campaign with Kate Moss.”
The deeply personal story behind the campaign—that of Sorrenti and Moss’s love story is perhaps just as iconic as the images themselves. As Sorrenti tells it, the campaign came to be as a result of designer Calvin Klein seeing images Sorrenti had taken of his then-girlfriend, 18-year-old Moss, on holiday. Seeing that spark of passion and longing conveyed in the photos, Klein tasked the photographer to hole up on a remote island in the Virgin Islands with Moss for a week and take pictures of her for the then soon-to-launch fragrance. And so they did, without hair and makeup or any other people around. “ There wasn’t really a specific concept,” says Sorrenti. “The idea was that I would go and photograph my girlfriend and just create something intimate and personal.”
Reflecting on that time, Moss says that while there was a bit more pressure on Sorrenti than usual, as he was a new photographer at the time, she describes the experience as being very much like another day in the life of a boyfriend and girlfriend. “We were alone for seven or eight days with no hair or makeup and just lots of Super 8 film and cameras, and we just went on our own and hung out and took pictures.”
The campaign was provocative even then and sparked some controversy when it came out, says Sorrenti, with certain conservative groups criticizing the brand for its advertising imagery. “I think it kind of shocked a lot of people,” he says, in retrospect, but he notes that the public response was largely positive. “I remember travelling through America at that time with my best friend and going to different colleges in America and seeing the photographs lifted out of magazines and taped up on the walls of dorms. That was kind of amazing, that I somehow reached my peers in a way that I thought was important.”
Moss, who had already appeared in a memorable Calvin Klein jeans campaign with rapper Marky Mark in 1992, was a model on the rise, but the Obsession campaign made her a breakout star. “I was like, ‘I’m on a bus in New York!’ I didn’t really know what people were saying about it because there was no social media, it’s not in your face like it is now. I was still working and getting on with it,” she says. “I suppose I started getting famous. People started recognizing me and knowing my name—that was what changed.” Now aged 43, Moss’s decades-long career is seemingly hotter than ever.
Asked what made the images so iconic, Sorrenti says, “For some reason, those photos touched a nerve with a lot of people. Maybe it’s the honesty in the way that Kate and I felt about each other that’s captured in the photographs. They’re kind of an enigma for me as well.”
“I think we were obsessed with each other,” adds Moss. “We were really young and in love and I think [Calvin Klein] just saw that. [Mario] had a camera and he was obsessed with taking pictures and I was a model and he took a lot of pictures of me. We were in love and he captured that.”
Story by Rachel Williams