Cultured Magazine

Fall 2015

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When you look back at the advertisements you remember from the last few decades, probably half of them featured scantily clad bodies. And likely, most of those provocative ads were created by legendary art director Sam Shahid, the soft- spoken but devilish Southerner whose work has dominated the conversation around fashion and beauty for decades. His work for Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic, in particular, has filtered into the collective consciousness, overlaying our memories of an entire era. Dressed in his strict uniform of a crisp white button-down shirt and khakis, Shahid is in the process of moving the offices of Shahid & Co. from its West Village home of 20 years to a nearby location downtown. "I love the theater, and that's the business I'm in," he says, as sincere as can be. "I'm an entertainer. When you create an image for a client, it's a performance." The advertising business has certainly changed in the last decade, and most of it doesn't please Shahid—especially the increasingly literal turn he has witnessed. "When we did Abercrombie, we didn't even show the clothes!" he exclaims. Shahid is the first to say that he has had a lot of lucky breaks. The Birmingham, Alabama, native toiled at the lowest level of the ad business for 15 years in his hometown, then in Atlanta and New York, before finally getting a chance to show his stuff in a series of Mad Men-worthy twists. He was working as a production executive at Calvin Klein's in-house advertising agency in the early 1980s when he got an urgent call: the clothes for a big Bruce Weber shoot in Mexico had been hung up at the border. He needed to pack his suitcase full of women's clothes—the samples— and get down there right away. It was part of his introduction to a circle of people that would set him on his stellar career path. "I met Bruce," he recalls. "I tooled around Mexico for two days, it was fantastic. It was a world I belonged with." He is clearly wistful for a certain high water mark of the nexus of photography, fashion and advertising that came in the 1980s. "With Ralph and Calvin and Donna and Armani, it was about beauty and sexuality. How fabulous can I be? They were all trying to outdo each other. The egos! It was the golden age of American designers, because they became celebrities." The work Shahid & Co. did for Abercrombie was one of the defining cultural memes of the 1990s. "They asked me initially what I thought of the brand, and I said, 'It's Norman Rockwell,'" says Shahid, though his version of Rockwell involved Weber photographs of shirtless young men, a series that had just the right amount of controversy to both make the news and sell clothes. In 1997, Shahid added A&F Quarterly, a catalog that was really a magazine, with articles about lifestyle, entertainment, travel, music and dating, edited by wunderkind Tyler Brule; at one point the catalog ballooned to 350 pages and 300,000 subscriptions. Where others just talked about clothing being a "lifestyle," Shahid made it a reality. And he lives that same vision at home, in a large Greenwich Village triplex that is sparsely designed like one of his ads, only emphasizing the correct things. Shahid claims not to be a collector, but his apartment—he had the acclaimed New York-Frankfurt firm 1100 Architects combine three apartments—features a serious trove of Poul Kjaerholm furniture. "Every piece, except two, is by him," says Shahid, including some rare dining chairs. "The work is very modern and very simple." The all-white scheme, punctuated rarely by black or red, soothes Shahid. "I work all day long, and there's so much around me, so when I go home it becomes very monastic. I can focus there." But don't go looking for an invitation to his third-floor aerie: That's his reading room, and it's totally private. "No guests," he says. It has a custom-made architect's table with a Lucite top and a metal base, with two rare Kjaerholm chairs in white lacquer. Shahid has pursued photography as a hobby for decades, and it's not surprising, given his work life, that he also has a small and well-chosen collection of work by the likes of Imogen Cunningham, George Platt Lynes, Walker Evans, Larry Clark and his friend, Weber. The art that he has tucked away also includes two Andy Warhol drawings and a Richard Prince painting. But wistfully, he also thinks about what he doesn't have. "I wish I had a Cy Twombly." Shahid's love of pure design has him currently focusing on book designing for book publisher Rizzoli, mostly for the projects of high-profile longtime friends like Kelly Klein and designer Michael Smith. But Shahid would like nothing more than to work his signature magic on the Brooks Brothers brand. "It's always been a fantasy of mine," he says. "What they are doing now is so corny, commercial and predictable. Today, the Europeans are much more creative than we are, especially with photography." Shahid pauses, and adds, "There's no sex to it—and sexy does sell, I can tell you that." On this topic, it doesn't pay to bet against him. 136 CULTURED THE NAKED TRUTH Advertising legend Sam Shahid helps remind us that sex sells. His art and design collecting are further proof of his unerring eye. BY TED LOOS Art director Sam Shahid treats each campaign as a performance. PORTRAIT BY MATTHEW KRAUS

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