By  on March 30, 2012

One measure of an ad campaign’s success is how much people talk about it — and Laspata DeCaro has generated plenty of chatter about a number of its campaigns.

One of the agency’s more controversial efforts was a 1992 campaign for Kenar Enterprises. It featured Linda Evangelista seated with a group of seven Sicilian ladies and one empty chair, representing a family in mourning, having lost a member to AIDS.

The agency photographed the campaign in Savoca, the Sicilian town where Francis Ford Coppola shot “The Godfather.” They found a church and asked women who were coming out of mass to participate in the campaign for a small fee and a donation to the parish.

“We had all these outfits with us [but were told they weren’t needed, since the women would be dressed appropriately],” recalled Rocco Laspata, co-creative director. “Mass let out, and we pulled out these chairs. The black-clad ladies came out and sat down, and Linda sat down.”

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After the ad ran, Richard Johnson of the New York Post called it “Beauty and the Seven Beasts,” which started a firestorm. According to press reports, New York’s Italian-American community complained that the ad promoted stereotypes by depicting the Sicilian women as frumpy.

“It wasn’t the Italian-American community per se, but rather a very vocal member of the Italian-American League,” said Charles DeCaro, co-creative director. “When he discovered that Linda, Rocco and myself were all of Italian descent, he piped down.”

According to DeCaro, “Everybody started analyzing this photo. An attorney in Italy thought everyone should get the same amount of money that Linda got. We had to get an attorney. One day I didn’t hear from the attorney, and I said I should check in with him, and find out if it will go to trial. He said that a trial had taken place, and the judge had gone missing. He said to consider the case over and that was the end of it.”

Limited edition photographs of the Kenar ad were sold for $1,000 apiece, with proceeds going to an AIDS education group. The International Center for Photography has included it as one of the “20 most important fashion photographs.”

Another eye-catching Kenar campaign featured Helena Christensen in the forest, completely naked except for a strategically placed banana leaf. Kenar’s chief executive officer, Ken Zimmerman, approved the image and wanted to use it on a billboard in Times Square.

Laspata and DeCaro recalled Zimmerman saying, “It’s supposed to be an ice-cold winter and people will look up and see this amazing woman.”

The billboard went up in December 1993. As it turned out, it was a frigid winter, and whenever TV news cameras panned across Times Square, there was the famous tropical photo.

“This was one time where the client wanted to push it more than the agency,” said Laspata.

Kenar sold the images on T-shirts with the tag line, “Be Safe in ’94. Protect Yourself,” and contributed the proceeds to an AIDS charity.

The partners explained that they could take more chances with the creative back then.

“It was a different time. You couldn’t get away with that now. There was shock value. Now, with the Internet, it’s pretty hard to shock anyone,” said Laspata.

But the partners said they never really set out to shock consumers with the campaigns. “It was never done intentionally. They were done to create beautiful images. You can see when something is done for shock value — you can see right through it,” said Laspata.

Another controversial campaign in 1996 featured an image of Evangelista kissing herself, made up as a man. DeCaro, who came up with the idea, said Evangelista originally didn’t want to do it, but was convinced after seeing the Polaroids. “Of all the pictures she has done, she has said this is the most memorable,” said DeCaro.

In fact, the Guggenheim has archived the “Linda Kissing Linda” image as an example of the epitome of androgyny, he said.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of their career was meeting with legendary Italian film director Federico Fellini in 1993.

As DeCaro explained, “The Italian press got wind that we were the creators of the ‘Italian ladies’ picture and we were back shooting in Italy. They said they’d leave us alone if we granted one interview.”

They had met Fellini while they were scouting locations, and he agreed to be in the Kenar campaign, however, Fellini got sick and died before the shoot. Still, the shoot went on a few months later. They planned to photograph Christensen in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. A friend producing the shoot persuaded the police to take a 15-minute coffee break so they could photograph in the fountain.

They arrived at 6:45 a.m. to do hair and makeup. The cops told them that if they were still in the fountain after 15 minutes, they would confiscate the film. (DeCaro’s parents were there, and they ran the film to his mother.)

“Helena had to be in and out of the fountain in 15 minutes,” DeCaro recounted. “The press came, and Helena was getting ready for next shot. One of the reporters asked, ‘How do you like Rome?’ She said three words: ‘I love Rome.’ The next morning, on page one, there was a photo of me, Rocco and Helena coming out of location van. The story said Helena Christensen was very excited about being in Rome and having the opportunity of working with Mr. Fellini on a movie, and that she travels with her two bodyguards because she fears she will be stabbed, like Monica Seles was.”

Another crazy experience occurred while shooting the Americana Manhasset’s look book in Paris.

“We photographed at Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris,” explained DeCaro. “There was a suicide on the train tracks on the outskirts of Paris the day we were shooting, which altered the entire train schedule.

“Unbeknownst to us, the train we had secured as our staging and changing room was put back into service and was headed for Vienna — with the Louis Vuitton outfit, steamer trunks and luggage we had prepped and placed on board in advance of shooting. I speak some French and thought I’d heard that the train we were using was departing but dismissed it at first, until I saw people boarding the train. Our production crew — who, being French, were enjoying a late afternoon cafe — suddenly came running toward us screaming to get everything off the train as it was leaving in two minutes. The ensuing mayhem was like a Keystone Cops skit.”

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