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Shepard Fairey. Spring “Want it!” campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue (2009). “Brighter Lips.” Reprinted from ADWEEK magazine, Februrary 26, 2009

On February 26, 2009, ADWEEK magazine announced the launch of the new spring marketing campaign by U.S. retail giant Saks Fifth Avenue. Right from the start of Kenneth Hein’s opening remarks in his article 'Saks Selects Shepard Fairey for Spring Ad Effort', the reader senses the ironic undertone, “The proletariat surely wouldn’t care for a bourgeoisie brand like Saks Fifth Avenue, however that hasn’t stopped the retailer from borrowing the look of a Russian Communist-era poster.”

The article reports that the struggling luxury chain, which was experiencing declining sales in view of the recession, had hired Fairey to create an “eye-catching” limited edition campaign comprised of new shopping bags, catalog covers, window displays and in-store presentations. Launching in-stores on 12 March of that year, the campaign received much attention, not only from its targeted audience, but also from many critics who were blunt in their review of the work Fairey created and Saks marketing executives approved. Unlike Hein, who kept the ironic undertone of his report somewhat subtle, Alice Rawsthorn, in her February 6, 2009, New York Times article 'The Enduring Legacy of Soviet Constructivism', began her review with a more aggressive statement:

I’d like to think it’s ironic. If not, it’s in lousy taste. At a time when unemployment is soaring and social unrest rising, Saks Fifth Avenue, the American department store chain, is trying to woo shoppers with a Constructivist-style advertisement featuring models raising their arms in a communist salute and carrier bags bearing the slogan ‘Want it!’

Shepard Fairey. Spring “Want it!” campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue (2009). “Electrify Your Colors.” Reprinted from ADWEEK magazine, Februrary 26, 2009

Even more ironic according to Rawsthorn was Fairey’s inspiration for the campaign, which exploited the graphic design work of artist Aleksandr Rodchenko who had started to design advertisements for the State-run department retailer GUM (Main Universal Store - Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin) in the 1920s. Quoting Mayakovsky’s (Rodchenko’s advertising partner) infamous expression, “deploy all of the weapons used by our enemies,” Rawsthorn questions not only the timing of the campaign, but more importantly, the objective. Persuading people to buy a “slouchy bag” instead of a new political system was for Rawsthorn, farcical.

Putting aside the political undertone of the campaign within its existing socio-political context in the USA at the time, where American artists were exploiting communist-era programs to promote industry in the U.S. (not unlike Soviet artists Rodchenko and Mayakovsky exploiting capitalistic programs to promote Communism back in the 1920s) the graphic elements employed by Fairey in the designs presented to Saks and his own objectives for exploiting them raises an interesting debate regarding the lasting influence of constructivist techniques in communication arts.

Comprised of bold marketing components, which consisted of vivid contrasts of type and images printed in dramatic colour applications of red, black and white, the Saks advertisements are plainly executed in the same Constructivist style Rodchenko employed in his own graphic designs in the 1920s. In one of the campaign posters, a young woman (looking very proletarian with her determined expression and authoritative stance) raises her arm with clenched fist demanding the goods Saks Fifth Avenue offers. The slogan reads, “Arm Yourself, With a Slouchy Bag.” This is obviously not about raising your fist to demand better stitching on your Prada bags, cleverly it is attempting to catch the audience’s attention in order to incite it to not only buy the product being promoted, but more importantly, be proud of supporting the brand behind it.

Shepard Fairey. Spring “Want it!” campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue (2009). “Arm Yourself.” Reprinted from ADWEEK magazine, Februrary 26, 2009

Another poster has a female model wearing relaxed cropped pants, which are described as “Brave Pants.” Looking like they were produced to defend workers’ rights, these designs promote a call to action. This objective is made even clearer by the campaign’s central slogan “Want It!” found on all of the marketing collateral. A testament to the legacy of Rodchenko’s contribution to graphic design even today.

Shepard Fairey. Spring “Want it!” campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue (2009). “Brave Pants.” Reprinted from ADWEEK magazine, Februrary 26, 2009

Clearly, for Fairey, Rodchenko’s innovative designs could be transported to any context because at the core of their execution the graphic elements employed communicated a strong message that would aid in stimulating the masses to participate in its idea. Even though the U.S. was in a recession and sales of goods were down, Saks was petitioning the masses to join them in an effort to stay strong together, not only helping their American brand, but more importantly, contributing to the economy as a whole. Asked if his work could be misunderstood as a form of sinister retail indoctrination, Fairey said, “Some people might think it could be making fun of what’s going on right now, but I think most people are sophisticated enough to realise it’s a way of grabbing attention. It’s commerce. I created this campaign because I’m not interested in speaking to a small group; I’ve always thought it was the duty of intelligence to make art for the people.”