I n 1973 Revlon made history with their Charlie fragrance advertising campaign – the first of its kind to feature a woman wearing pants. Although this stylistic decision appears rather tame by today’s standards, it’s that same intrepid nature and progressive outlook that make Ruba Abu-Nimah perfectly suited as the legacy brand’s current Creative Director (watch this campaign video to see for yourself). Prior to Revlon, Abu-Nimah worked for top beauty companies, including, Shiseido, Pat McGrath and Bobbi Brown, after which she became Elle magazine’s first-ever female Creative Director. The Middle Eastern-born, internationally raised and New York-based advertising wiz is known for her Warholian understanding of art and commerce, which can also be felt in the high-low juxtapositions on her mesmerizing Instagram. “One of my biggest lessons in life is that art, fashion and commerce are all connected,“ Abu-Nimah told Sotheby’s. “My goal for the last 30 years has been to bring the absolute best quality we can afford to any brand I work for.” Speaking to her profession and passion for photography, Abu-Nimah selected her favorite pieces from Sotheby’s Photographs auction (5 April, New York) and spoke to us about her many inspirations, from Penn to punk.
Where did your interest in photography begin?
I developed my interest in photography as a teen because it was right around the birth of magazines like The Face, Arena and i-D, which I was obsessed with. There was a lot of experimentation in their photography, even though it was all still very analogue. Then I went to art school at the Maryland Institute College of Art and later Parsons.
Do you collect photography?
I married a photographer, and we started collecting photography books in the late 1980s. We now have a 5,000-plus book collection. I also love photojournalism and all of the New York school photographers. We have a couple of photographs by Helmut Newton and Franco Rubartelli. We have a Robert Polidori of downtown Amman, which is where I was born. I’ve always wanted to own an Irving Penn. To me, he is the absolute master. I was very lucky to meet and know his son, and I visited his dark room out in Huntington. It’s like going to church for me.
Who have been some of your favorite photographers to work with?
Mario Sorrenti and Raymond Meier are two I currently work with quite regularly who really bridge the gap between art and commerce. At the beginning of my career, I worked for the then newly launched French edition of Glamour magazine, which was very high-end and forward thinking. One of the journalists had this idea of doing a story about strange clubs in Paris, like the club of businessmen who like to eat sardines, but no one knew whom should photograph it. I had just graduated from art school and was very starry eyed, and I said, “How about William Klein?” The photograph of the heavy women in the Turkish baths that has now become one of his most famous is the image that our team commissioned when I was 21. No one realizes it was for an editorial shoot – at Glamour, no less.
How would you describe your approach to depicting beauty?
I approach everything like art. Revlon is a really interesting example because I never worked for mass before. A few months into working here, I realized the subject doesn’t matter, it’s the quality of the image and how we approach it. We are able to take an $8 lipstick and make it looks like something that could hang in the walls of a gallery.
People forget that so many iconic photographs were for mass advertising, and yet they can also be high art.
And they need to be high art. There are no more Irving Penns. Maybe Raymond Meier is the closest you could get. There is nobody experimenting with dye transfers and platinum prints, etc. I think it’s okay if the chemistry changes, but the quality can’t.
What do you think about contemporary photographers and creative directors reinterpreting classic beauty and fashion images – where does the line get crossed in terms of imitation versus interpretation?
The other day I Googled “Irving Penn lipstick mouth,” and I was unbelievably shocked by how many other photographers had tried to recreate that picture. I absolutely refuse to insult another photographer by copying a classic photo and sticking a logo on it. While I love the history of art and photography and always want to be informed, the whole point is to create something new.
What about the Blumenfeld eye?
It’s so ubiquitous right now that it’s been bastardized. Most people recognize that picture but have no idea of its heritage or what Blumenfeld did for our industry.
Can you speak about Revlon sponsoring the Frida Kahlo exhibition and opening, and Kahlo’s many Revlon products, which are in the show?
Frida was one of the first women to go against the grain in terms of visual beauty standards, and there’s a tremendous amount of respect I have for that. She embraced her physical disabilities and turned them into her art. During her time Revlon was a prestige brand – not mass. I would have loved to recreate some of the product and do a limited run of the original packaging and colors because I actually think they’re still very modern.
How has a commitment to inclusivity shaped your beauty narrative?
When we test images with one actress or a model, it resonates far less with our consumers than if we feature five women who look very different. That to me is a blessing. We have Ashley Graham and Adwoa Aboah as our spokespeople. Ashley has changed the perception of women on such a massive scale, and the same with Adwoa, who is not what would be considered conventional beauty. I take great pains to not modify these women in any shape or form, so when they tell me Adwoa wears tons of jewelry and has a lot of tattoos, we do not remove any of those elements. I don’t let the stylists take away who they are.
How did street style become such an important part of what you do visually, in particular with the images you feature on your Instagram?
I grew up in the late 1970s/1980s in London, and punk happened. I was like, this is me. A lot of that punk aesthetic, the work of Jamie Reid and Vivienne Westwood, to this day influences my work. I was obsessed with Jean Paul Gaultier because his work was so perfectly subversive. When I was in high school, I saved and saved to buy a jacket by him, and I would wear it with my jeans and sneakers because I couldn’t afford anything else. That high-low mix is still with me today, and I do think it came from that punk aesthetic where you could do whatever you wanted.