If you thought for a moment that photographer David LaChapelle might be selling out by shooting ads for Swedish hosiery brand Happy Socks, here’s proof that he certainly is not. This nine-minute-long video, filmed in conjunction with a print ad campaign starring an under-dressed dance troupe (nude but for their colorful feet), features actress Katie Johnson as a prostitute. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” it follows Johnson’s character as she puts on her Happy Socks and becomes overwhelmed by the urge to escape her brothel and dance frenetically, clad in just her underwear (and socks, of course), through the streets of downtown L.A. Meanwhile, her “madam” — played by Johnson’s real-life mother — pursues her, screeching in Mandarin Chinese.
It’s not a pleasant or glamorous scene at all, especially when it ends with Johnson’s character throwing herself in front of a train and losing her legs. (There’s a lot of fake blood and campy gore.) So, what was the concept, exactly? “It’s a statement about anti-commercialism,” explains Johnson via e-mail. “It’s a statement on not selling out. You don’t have to lie to pitch something to sell product.”
What does this have to do with socks? “The moral is something to the effect of, even if you do sell out by putting on the shoes or socks, and it hurts you (as it often does), you can still make the choice to be happy in the end,” she writes. (Whether Johnson’s amputated character seems happy, as she is wheeled down the sidewalk by her madam, is open to interpretation.)
Or, as LaChapelle’s longtime collaborator John Byrne explains it: “I like dance, and prostitutes and absurd narratives. We just played with what we had.” He says that LaChapelle came up with the idea on the spur of the moment, working on storyboards in his trailer during the shoot’s lunch break. “David has a recurring theme in his work of taking things people find ugly and presenting them as beautiful.”
Viktor Tell, co-founder of Happy Socks, adds, “We don’t like the idea of commercialism that much, and the message of the film goes against that.”